If you want to hear a good Succot story...

Have you heard the one about a Welshman, Canadian and Iraqi at a festival in Givatayim?

By ZELDA HARRIS, VAUGHAN SPENCER
September 22, 2010 16:20
Master storytellers at the festival.

311_Storytellers. (photo credit: Dan Yashinsky)

The ushpizin (guests) at the upcoming International Storytelling Festival in Givatayim are Taffy Thomas, Queen Elizabeth’s storytelling laureate, Dan Yashinsky, the founder of the Toronto Festival of Storytelling who was awarded the Jane Jacobs Prize for his storytelling community work, and Ismail Fahdel, the renowned Iraqi singer.

It is highly appropriate that the festival should welcome to its succa these distinguished guests to tell their stories during the Succot holiday, which commemorates the Jewish people’s 40 years of wandering through the desert.

The importance of storytelling and its potential social impact has been a key issue for Yossi Alfi, Israel’s master storyteller and artistic director of the festival for the last 18 years.

For the first time, the festival will include an international conference on September 24 in which Alfi will talk about “The ten basic principles of the storyteller in the community.”

Alfi was born in Basra, Iraq, and arrived in Israel as a child in 1949. He studied theater at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and graduated with honors. Since then, Alfi has embarked on a career that covers nearly every aspect of Israel’s artistic and cultural spectrum, successfully readapting himself to new creative challenges.

He has written 23 books, including children’s stories, prose, manuals on theater and poetry, the latest being Love poems for Sue , dedicated to his wife.

In 1997, for Israel’s 50th anniversary, he directed and performed in the opera Dream in Blue and White, which told the story of a child’s voyage from Iraq to Israel in the late 1940s. He also founded and was first director of the Givatayim theater.

One of the key threads in Alfi’s work has been his use of different artistic outlets to explore the extent to they can provide a channel for narrating and exposing critical social issues. An example of this has been his contribution to the TV series, Stories on the Road and his initiation of the community theater movement in Israel.

Life provides the material which art sculpts for its audience, who in turn leave touched and perhaps even changed with new insight and knowledge.

Life becomes art, and art gives back to life, he believes.

The storytelling festival epitomizes this philosophy. Every year, the public is invited to watch staged performances at the Givatayim theater which retain the intimacy and personal touch that the art of storytelling requires. The performers include a wide range of high profile and controversial personalities in Israeli society: stars of stage, screen, radio and TV, military personalities, academics, moguls, politicians, diplomats and religious luminaries.

Also included are the other important if sometimes less prominent in our society, vatikim (old timers) whose invaluable, moving and poignant stories transport us through a complex tapestry of Israeli life.

The festival has even become a household commodity through repeated broadcasts of mesaprei sippurim (storytellers) on television and radio.

In this way, everyone can draw from the particular stories that might have particular relevance to them. Indeed, Alfi argues that storytelling is a form of community art that unites people around a narrative, which is why it provides a unique opportunity for crosscommunity dialogue as well as fostering respect and compassion for others and their narratives.

Storytelling, aside from being extremely enjoyable, has the ability to open doors and break down barriers. In Israeli society alone, this should have farreaching consequences. Our society is certainly not homogenous and the varying communities within it are a source for a fascinating array of stories reflecting the customs and beliefs as well as the hopes and dreams of the mosaic of religious and ethnic communities.

At times, these narratives may conflict, but if Israel seeks real integration and social harmony, then these communities need a platform from which to enter into dialogue.

The festival also aims to tap the unique power of storytelling internationally, gathering together the tales of communities unknown to us. In the past, the festival has hosted guests from abroad, including Egypt and Morocco.

But this year the festival reaches even further in its efforts to open doors – as the presence of our Welshman, Canadian and Iraqi guests testifies.

Alfi heard about Taffy from a family member in the UK who called to tell him that he had seen a performance by a wonderful storyteller and wondered whether he had heard of him. Never one to miss a good story, Alfi called and invited Taffy to Israel. The response was one of delight. Taffy agreed to tell his magical tales and added that he was looking forward to visiting “the land of the Bible stories,” as well as adding a story or two to his repertoire.

His performance involves allowing the audience to choose the tales embroidered on his “tale” coat – a story jukebox – and hear one of many extraordinary folk tales, which range from Inuit creation tales and African animal stories to myths and legends rooted in the valleys and fells of the English Lake District.

From the other side of the Atlantic, the Toronto-based Yashinsky brings his unique brand of story telling, brilliantly conveyed in his book Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the 21st century.

He has performed in Israel before and in many countries around the world and as he is Jewish has a rich repertoire of hassidic material from Poland and Russia. For the festival, he will tell the “The Tale of Stormfools Cool Gig,” which describes a storyteller who has the greatest freelance job in the world – spinning yarns to a rich recluse – but both he and his listener discover that the value of stories cannot be measured by money.

Last but not least, Fahdel, the first Iraqi singer to appear in Israel, will bring his special musical talents to the Iraqi hafla (happening) that has become a highlight of every festival.

These songs were composed by the Jewish-Iraqi musical composers Salah and Daoud El Kuwaiti who were born in Kuwait and came to Israel in 1950.

Their songs remain popular in Iraq, Jordan and Arab countries in the Gulf.

The celebration of Salah and Daoud El Kuwaitis’ centenaries will be marked in many Arab countries this year.

Apart from these guests from overseas, the program includes Rifka Michaeli, who will talk about her childhood and teens, and Karin Ophir, who will discuss her beloved father, Shaike Ophir. There will also be Aulcie Perry, the iconic basketball player who converted to Judaism, TV crime reporter Dana Weiss and lawyer Sassi Guez, as well as former IDF chief Dan Halutz and former IAF chief Eitan Ben Eliyahu, who will talk about the great pilots of the air force. The sheer diversity of the speakers will ensure a wide range of opinions as well as experiences.


The fact that the festival this year celebrates the Jewish Iraqi heritage, which is of course Alfi’s own, and that Arabs share this culture and celebrate it is also a reminder of way in which Israeli identity is unequivocally international.

Indeed, the festival hopes that the importance of promoting pluralism in what will be a key theme of the event.

According to Zecharia, in the messianic age Succot will become a universal festival and all nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem.

Whether or not we live in a messianic age, Succot can be universal in the here and now. This is why Alfi hopes to build a national storytelling environment in which Israelis of all sectors of our society talk about the happy, sad, incredulous and even tragic events that make the people of Israel what they are as well as embrace the worldwide heritage of every Israeli’s past and future.

The public is advised that seating will be limited. Tickets range from NIS 75 to NIS 95 and can be purchased at 03- 5616124 (People’s Theater) or 03- 5730661 (Box Office). There are reductions for groups and pensioners.


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